From the opening notes of Riz Ortolani’s romantic score Ruggero Deodato’s film sets out to sidestep audience expectation somewhat. There are cannibal horror movies and there’s Cannibal Holocaust. Has there ever been such a controversial film made in all cinema history?
Abusive, disgusting, lurid, misogynistic, racist, all these descriptions sit next to: brilliant, haunting, mesmerising and powerful. Whatever you throw at – accusation or praise – it tends to stick. The movie offers a murky, blood-soaked path for the viewer to navigate - if they're brave enough.
The closing jungle sequence, in which the intrepid gang are hunted down by the angry Ya̧nomamös, is Deodato’s most excessive point and he uses the bleakest humour. So pitch-black, in fact, some probably don’t see the satire. Even at the moment of death the camera rolls to exploit the hopeless situation. It could be said Alan, Faye, Jack and Mark stop being characters all together and become mere objects of the director's scorn for the media. Such is the barbarity of these last moments, the viewer feels disorientated and quite possibly numb.
Of course the major issue many have with Cannibal Holocaust is it sensationalises that which it seeks to condemn. Random acts of animal slaughter which serve no purpose beyond the perfunctory adds to this sense of confusion. The new cut presented at Cine-Excess V on May 26th, 2011, has recently been granted a BBFC certificate and passed with a mere fifteen seconds worth of cuts. They come from the muskrat scene. As Felipe the guide kills the poor little critter Deodato now cuts away to the jungle, but the gruelling shriek remains. Other contentious moments have been re-edited too.
Throughout the film, when things get extra gory, the director uses a smart special effects device which presents itself as scratches over the film. It works well. The turtle sequence has been trimmed and now seems to cause no problems for the BBFC. Again, special effects are implemented over the scene when it gets that little bit too gruesome but there’s plenty to see – whether you want to or not.
On the big screen Cannibal Holocaust’s ability to shock is undiminished and surely testament to the skill of its director. The savagery of the imagery packs a mean punch as much as the transgressive cannibalism. The forced abortion, impaled girl and the burned, rotting body of an old woman are still repulsive. The unflinching camera's gaze and the excitement of the filmmakers maximizes audience discomfort.
After 30 years the film continues to be seen one of the most shocking ever made. Unlike the works of Umberto Lenzi and others who ventured deep into the cannibal subgenre Deodato’s fine craftsmanship shines. He began his career as an assistant to Italian master Roberto Rossellini and became a noted AD working with major European and American filmmakers throughout the 1960s.
Does Cannibal Holocaust exist within the fine tradition of Italian neo-realism? Perhaps on a superficial level it does. Yet the true inspiration, one less celebratory than an iconic period of Italian cinema, are documentaries such as Mondo cane (1962), which sensationalised other cultures, faked supposedly authentic rituals and included the slaughter of animals for extra kicks. Pushing boundaries and exploiting material walked hand in hand and to hell with taste!
Deodato's new cut, to be released in a few months time – bar a moral panic or media shit storm, will no doubt further the debate on the film's merits and failings and allow a new generation to experience Deodato’s picture close to as originally intended. Indeed, questions still remain over the validity of its message and stance but there’s no denying, however accidental, its cinematic power.
Cannibal Holocaust is released on Blu-ray by Shameless Films Monday 26th September, 2011.